Today we don't worship God by slaying a bull or a goat and offering it as a sacrifice. The sacrifice Christians are to offer is a living one. But what does that mean?
In Romans 12:1 the apostle Paul wrote that we should present our bodies "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God." A "living sacrifice"? What was Paul talking about? Aren't sacrifices killed? Well, they were in Old Testament times. Back then the slaying of an animal foreshadowed the time when the Lamb of God would be offered for the sins of the world. Since the death of Jesus we no longer need to offer animal sacrifices as part of our religious worship. Even under the Old Covenant, though, animal sacrifices were only substitutes for what God really wanted. It wasn't that He needed animals offered to Him. He owns everything. "For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills," He declares (Ps. 50:10). Samuel put his finger on what God really desires: "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?" he asked. "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (I Sam. 15:22). The prophet Micah inquired: "Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Mic. 6:6-7). Would these actions satisfy God? Here is the answer: "He hath shewed thee, 0 man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (verse 8). That's what God wants! The sacrifices that truly please Him involve genuine repentance. "For thou desirest not [animal] sacrifice; else would I give it," David stated. "Thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, 0 God, thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 51:16-17). The problem was that without the Holy Spirit, carnal human beings could not fulfill the requirements for conversion. So the physical, Levitical system was set up, by which sin was acknowledged (but not paid for) by various sacrifices. Physical substitutions and profound ceremonial symbols were used to foreshadow the spiritual administration under the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit would be given to those God called.
Physical Israel had a physical priesthood serving in a physical tabernacle or temple. Today the Church is spiritual Israel. And the Church is the Temple. The Church in one sense is also a priesthood, as the apostle Peter pointed out in I Peter 2:5: "Ye also, as lively [living] stones, are built up a spiritual house [not a physical temple], an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices." Again in verse 9 he stated, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation." Of course! For we are training to be kings and priests in the coming government of God (Rev. 1:6,5:10). "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection... they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6). What an awesome calling! In view of that calling, one cannot help but notice many parallels between various aspects of the Old Testament priesthood and what our spiritual lives should be like. Take, for example, the clothing the priests wore. It was to be made of fine linen — garments "for glory and for beauty" (Ex. 28:40-43, 39:27-31). Revelation 19:8 tells us that "fine linen is the righteousness of saints." Fine white linen represents God's righteousness — the keeping of commandments (Ps. 119:172). David exclaimed, "Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness" (Ps. 132:9). The priests' clothing was given to them. They had to put off their own. In the same way we must get rid of our own righteousness, which is as filthy rags (lsa. 64:6), and let God clothe us with His righteousness (Isa. 61:10). Jesus — the Eternal — is our righteousness (Jer. 23:6). That's why we are told to "put off" the deeds of the flesh and to "put on" the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14, Gal. 3:27).
God's Spirit is unique
Some mistakenly think there are other churches similar to God's Church. Actually, there is no such thing as being "almost" God's Church. Either it is God's Church with God's Spirit, or it is as far from it as death is from life. The Holy Spirit makes the difference. There is no substitute for God's Spirit. This is made clear by the holy anointing oil — symbol of the Holy Spirit — with which the Levitical priests were anointed. It was a special blend of prize spices and oil, not to be duplicated for any other use (Ex. 30:22-33). If you have received the Holy Spirit and are letting it lead you, stop and think how vastly different it makes you from those who do not have it — the way you think and act and react, the fruits borne in your life. We are different. God's Spirit sets us apart and makes us holy. We are "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling," "partakers of the Holy Spirit" (Heb. 3:1, 6:4), for we "have been anointed by the Holy One" (I John 2:20, Revised Standard Version). Not just everybody could be a priest. No one else could "join" the priesthood. Only those chosen by God — the descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi. When God told Moses to anoint Aaron and his sons, He pointed out that "their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations" (Ex. 40:15). We, too, have been anointed to serve God forever — throughout all eternity. The priests in ancient Israel had to be totally familiar with God's laws, statutes and judgments so they could teach others the right way (Deut. 17:9-12, Lev. 10:10-11). In the government of the world tomorrow, the Church and state will not be separate. One government will enforce both civil and religious laws, because the principles overlap. That's why we will be kings and priests. Do you know God's spiritual and physical laws well enough that you will be able to teach the world in that day? God told Moses, "Aaron and his sons thou shalt bring unto the door of the tabernacle... and shalt wash them with water" (Ex. 29:4). They had to be clean to be consecrated to God, just as we must be cleansed by the waters of baptism. Not only that, they had to continually cleanse themselves when they appeared before God. Otherwise they would die (Ex. 30:19-21). "Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord," Isaiah 52:11 admonishes. "Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor. 7:1).
What about the "spiritual sacrifices" we are to offer (l Pet. 2:5)? Here, too, Old Testament types are instructive. The offerings performed by the Levitical priests particularly foreshadowed facets of Jesus Christ's life and death. Of special interest to us here is the burnt offering. In this sacrifice an entire animal (except the skin of the larger animals) was burned upon the altar. It was not classified as an offering for sin; it had a different spiritual significance. It was a voluntary offering of a sweet savor to God (Lev. 1:3, 9), sweet because God loves voluntary giving. Not all sacrifices were voluntary. Not all were of a sweet savor (Lev. 4-6:7). Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of the burnt offering. He was without blemish (Lev. 1:3). He gave Himself completely to God. He was completely consumed in dedication to God. We are to follow His example. Notice, in Leviticus 1:8-9, how the different parts of a burnt offering are listed: the head (having the eyes, ears and mouth, as well as the mind and thoughts), the fat (the health and well-being), the inwards (the feelings, emotions and affections) and the legs (the path or way of walking). The total being — this is what we must offer to God when we "present our bodies" to Him (Rom. 12:1). We are expected to give our lives, emotions, thoughts, desires, plans — all that makes up us — as a voluntary offering to God, to be totally burned up in service to Him. When the brethren at Philippi performed a good work by sending help to the apostle Paul, he wrote back: "I have [received] all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God" (Phil. 4:18). Of course, we are not "without blemish" as burnt offerings were supposed to be and as Christ was. But God has provided for that. Jesus, our great High Priest, typified by Aaron (Ex. 28), appears before God on our behalf. On Him is the divine seal of approval that He is "Holiness to the Lord" (verses 36-37). As far as we are concerned, even our best efforts are often imperfect. But God looks on the heart. And Jesus is, as Aaron was, before God to "bear the iniquity [the imperfection] of the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow in all their holy gifts... that they may be accepted before the Lord" (verse 38). That is how our spiritual sacrifices are "acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (l Pet. 2:5).
The "give" way of life
Voluntary sacrifices, such as those even under the Old Covenant, typified the way of life called the way of giving. To take a choice, spotless animal from one's herd or flock and slay it was an expensive proposition. It was indeed a sacrifice. Voluntarily giving the best to God — that is the kind of offering God wants. Obeying God has a price. There is a sacrifice: We must lay down our own lives. And not just once — we must do it repeatedly. God commanded that the fire on the sacrificial altar was never to go out. The priests had to keep it burning constantly (Lev. 6:12-13). There was to be a "continual burnt offering" — a sacrifice totally consumed twice a day, evening and morning, day in and day out (Ex. 29:38-42). Our prayers ascend before God's throne as ceremonial incense once did. David prayed, "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Ps. 141:2). How sweet smelling and pleasing it is to God when a human being sincerely reoffers himself totally to God daily. Or why not even twice a day, as the evening and morning sacrifices were offered? An animal sacrifice died once. And that was that. We are to be living sacrifices, offered anew every day. And if we are ever called on to give up even these physical lives for God, we, like the apostle Paul, must be "ready to be offered" (II Tim. 4:6) in that manner also. Notice what Jesus is recorded as saying to God: "Sacrifice and offering [of animals] thou wouldest not [that's not what God is really after], but a body hast thou prepared me [a human body in which He could do the Work of God, giving Himself daily in service, fulfilling God's will in everything and finally laying down His life for the sins of mankind]: In [animal] burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come [and here is what really matters]... to do thy will, 0 God" (Heb. 10:5-7). Our lives are made up of time. It takes time to visit the sick. It takes time to pray for others. It takes time to help those who need help. A Christian life is a life of outgoing giving — sacrificing selfish, personal desires. Not that we should go around looking at everything we do for God as a painful exercise in sacrificing, feeling sorry for ourselves as though life should be a bed of nails. Our sacrifices should be "sacrifices of joy" (Ps. 27:6), "sacrifices of thanksgiving" (Ps. 107:22, 116:17) and sacrifices "of praise" (Heb. 13:15). It is an honor and privilege to sacrifice anything for the One who gave more to us than we can ever give to Him. David asked, "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?" (Ps. 116:12). God wants us to serve Him "with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart" (Deut. 28:47) — not begrudgingly. A Christian should totally offer himself to God every day, seeking to obey Him and to live a life based on the principles of the way of give, "for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love [one's] neighbor as himself, is more than all whole [ceremonial] burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:32-33). Yes, it is a living sacrifice!